Thursday, July 27, 2006

Molecular gastronomy

I had a realization the other day while reading that Dick Francis novel : I've been excessively suppressing my desire to read novels, and since I've got to maintain obsessive work levels right through to my mid-September book deadline & quite possibly a bit beyond, I must pace myself--which means allowing myself a novel once or twice a week (or perhaps even a bit more, that doesn't sound like very many!) so that I don't totally implode.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that I stayed up late last night reading one of my most-awaited books of the year, the latest installment in Poppy Z. Brite's excellent series about New Orleans chefs Rickey and G-man: Soul Kitchen.

(The first two are Liquor and Prime, you can get all three for a relatively modest sum of money and then indulge yourself in a decadent reading binge, I highly recommend this--and then there's also The Value of X, which tells Rickey and G-man's relationship backstory--it's a bit more expensive but if you get hooked on the series you won't be able to resist. I had it from the library to economize....)

I'm not sure when Brite became someone whose writing serves as a kind of touchstone for me, but I see I've blogged about it very regularly over the past year or so. Partly that's because her blog Dispatches from Tanganyika has been my single best and clearest source on life in New Orleans post-Katrina: seriously, it's a very good lesson in what a well-written blog can do that newspaper reporting can't. But it's also because she's a spectacularly good writer, in the most cunning and unobtrusive and entertaining way.

This book is absolutely excellent. The main characters and their relationship are so intently and vividly imagined and captured on the page that you really feel to an unusual degree that you know and care about them, but the subsidiary characters are also very well-drawn (I have a particular soft spot for Lenny). The New Orleans and restaurant-kitchen settings are perfect, and the food writing is smart and funny and insightful. But what I most admire is the pacing, the way Brite balances the different stories she's telling (serious ones: ongoing tensions in Rickey and G-man's relationship, Rickey's getting hooked on painkillers, the fate of a black chef unjustly sent to Angola for ten years for a murder he didn't commit) with the funniest satire on pretentious foodies and restaurateurs and the most demented collection of Saints kitsch and the most convincing obscene kitchen banter. All this with the perfect & lightest touch.

The best thing of all is the placement of the unbelievably funny molecular gastronomy scene just near the end of the book--we know this has been coming, it's a satirical opportunity not to be missed, and yet its exact positioning is a most delightful surprise in terms of the pacing and shape of the story as a whole. There's definitely something reminiscent of John Kennedy Toole here, particularly that disorienting combination of serious/high-stakes writing with very dark comedy.

In short, I loved it. I read the entire thing with a kind of pain in the pit of my stomach, though: the book's happy ending is haunted by the shadow of Katrina oncoming. A note at the beginning of the novel says that it was completed the night before the hurricane hit; Brite has written on her blog about the fantasy of insulating these characters' world from its effects but also about her growing realization that she would have to bring their New Orleans into alignment with the real-world one. That's going to be an awful book to write, but an important and amazing one to read....

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Jenny, for this wonderful review. I love Brite's Liquor novels, and I didn't even know she had a new one out. I'm off to the bookshop...